A group of us spent five days at Original this past week. This is a textile extravaganza in Mexico City that honors indigenous weavers and designers from throughout Mexico. With over 1,000 artisans showing and selling what they make, to say the event was mind-boggling is an understatement. The show also featured pottery, lacquerware, copper, basketry, jewelry, and so much more.
We needed five days to do justice to Original! The event was held at Los Pinos in Chapultepec Park. It is the former residence and grounds of Mexico’s past presidents. When Lopez Obrador took office five years ago, he converted the mansions and grounds into a cultural center accessible to all.
Prominently featured were the textile makers of Chiapas. They work on backstrap looms as wide as their hips. Each finished length of cloth is then meticulously sewn together using intricate needle stitching that when complete looks like embroidery — but it isn’t!
A highlight was our meeting with Alberto Lopez Gomez, a weaver, designer, and one of the volunteer event organizers. We sat together under the shade of a large tree just beyond his exhibition booth while he showed us an extraordinary teal blue and black collector’s huipil and explained the meaning of each symbol in the cloth.
This particular huipil tells a story that is significant in his village, which is part of the municipality of Magdalena Aldama, one of the most accomplished weaving villages in the region.
Alberto talks about how important snakes are in Maya symbolism, and points to the first row of design in this huipil. Then he shows us Señor de la Tierra, Lord of the Earth holding up the universe. The next image is one of a bat, which is a messenger in his culture; after that is the corn god named Culiacán, then the sun, mother and father, representing the family.
There are images of clay pitchers used to water the field crops, and triangles denoting the four cardinal points.
Diamonds also represent flowers, corn, and large stars that depict the cycle of planting. Farmers arise in the pre-dawn and are guided by the stars. When stars smaller in the sky, ancient farmers knew the rainy season coming and it was time to plant.
Snakes, worms, and caterpillars are highly respected in Maya mythology and used for traditional medicine. Mayas also honor the underworld, and this is also reflected in the designs.
In this huipil, we also see white orchids, which are gathered in the mountains by the elderly. They are the only ones allowed to collect these. The orchids are the border design around the collar.
If a garment has fringes or tassels, these represent the braided hair of the women. This particular textile is very special, Alberto says, because it represents the story of his pueblo.
He now works with over 200 weavers in various municipalities in Chiapas.
We visit Alberto in his private home studio in San Cristobal de las Casas during our Chiapas Textile Study Tour. We have spaces open and invite you to join us as we explore the Maya textile culture of southern Mexico this February 2024.
Eric Chavez Santiago, Oaxaca Cultural Navigastor managing partner, with Alberto Lopez Gomez
Rooted in pre-Hispanic indigenous religious and spiritual practices that has nothing to do with the Catholicism imported to Mexico by the Conquistadores and attending priests, unfortunately, Day of the Dead has morphed into what is becoming an attraction for party-goers in Oaxaca. Day of the Dead is coming back around on the calendar, observed from October 31 to November 2, and it’s time to write about What is Day of the Dead? for visitors and travelers. I want to plead for respectfulness for ancient cultural practices. These are the days to remember the ancestors.
These dates were set by the conquerors to blend the pre-Hispanic native rituals to remember those who have passed with All Souls’ and All Saints’ Days on the Christian calendar. The blending of European and indigenous practices is called syncretism and was an effective way of bringing indigenous people into the religious fold of the conquerors.
Let’s take a step back. Up the road from where I live in Oaxaca, the Zapotec-Mixtec archeological site (and village) San Pablo Villa de Mitla was the burial grounds for the ruling elite. Originally called Mictlan, which means place of the dead, the reverence for the ancestors was played out with offerings of candles, incense, bread, corn and squash, pulque, chocolate and flowers, mostly wild marigold that grew in the countryside. Elaborate altars were constructed on floor-level that included these offerings. With the conquest, the altars were raised and included a backdrop of Jesus on the Cross and the Virgin of Guadalupe. Today, in many traditional homes we visit, the altar is placed on the ground as it was in ancient days. Around the altar, family members sit with their memories in quiet contemplation as the candles burn and the incense is constantly replenished.
In ancient times, family members were buried in tombs inside each home. With Catholicism, cemeteries became the place where the deceased were interred. Yet, the tradition of respect, reverence and solemn tribute to a loved one’s memory continued. In the 18 years I have lived in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, I have come to understand how important Day of the Dead is to the collective, family and individual memory of a loved one who has crossed over. I have sat quietly with friends at their family plots as they recall the life of the person buried there. Often, these plots will hold the bones of generations of family members, as the plot is recycled every ten years, the time it takes for a body to decompose. The grave is cleaned and the bones replaced there, readying it for the next occupant.
This is how we do it here.
In the last two years, all this has changed. Foreign visitors arrive on tour buses with painted faces and in Halloween costume. (Did you know that Halloween is the second biggest spending holiday in the USA next to Christmas?) They bring mezcal, beer and a picnic into the cemeteries. They gawk. They dance to the music the village band is playing to cheer the local community. It is party-time in Oaxaca regardless of local custom, and these external influences are changing local behavior.
I’m not one to say, Let’s keep everything the way it was. Change is inevitable and there has always been cultural interchange, innovation and adaptation. Yet, what I see I interpret as destructive. Locals are going earlier in the day to decorate the graves and then leave the cemetery before the crowd of visitors arrive. They prefer the peacefulness and solitude that marks this ritual. A few locals say, It’s good for business to have visitors. But, no one, in my opinion, who comes to the cemetery to party is going to buy a handwoven rug that may cost hundreds of dollars! They come to take away only an experience.
I often wonder if any of the guides who bring visitors has a conversation with them about cultural history and respectfulness, as we do when we bring people to the cemetery. When we take a small group we always go accompanied by a local friend who will take us to a family gravesite, sit with us, and explain the practices.
Oaxaca is now an international destination. It is attracting visitors who want to sample mezcal, dine in world renown restaurants, and immerse themselves in the excitement of the Day of the Dead comparsas — the parades — in Oaxaca city. The film Coco did much to popularize Day of the Dead, and I hear from friends in Patzcuaro, Michoacan, where the Coco story originated, that in the artisan villages surrounding the lake, Purepecha people have adapted and adopted the face painting and costumes to attract tourism.
Eric and Norma, Day of the Dead 2021, Teotitlan del Valle
When you visit, please be aware that you will leave a footprint. What kind of footprint do you want to have? What will you learn and what will you take away from participating in this ancient practice? How will you reflect on death and dying, and compare it to how mourning and remembrance is done in Mexico with where you come from? What are your own family traditions?
And, how would you respect your own grandparents and antecedents in the cemetery where they are buried?
Many of us find comfort in the handmade. We know that most handwoven, embroidered, appliqued, and other ornamental elements of cloth are made by women, many of whom live in rural areas that struggle with poverty, lack of access to health care and limited educational facilities. We buy, collect, wear handmade not only for its innate beauty, but because we are supporting women and families. The social justice of textiles is cross-border and cross-politics.
Yet, political boundaries separate tribal groups and families, too. Think of the Maya of Chiapas, Mexico and Guatemala, who were separated by the Usumacinta River post-Mexican Revolution. Think of the Pakistanis and their cousins who live in Gujarat, India, separated after the partition that created the Muslim and Hindu nations.
Textiles know no borders, grew in similar ways on different continents, using the same techniques, explains Yasmine Dabbous, PhD, an anthropologist who is based in Beirut, Lebanon. Founder of Kinship Stories, she delivered the keynote address at the Weave a Real Peace (WARP) Annual Conference that I attended via Zoom on Saturday, June 19, 2021.
Textiles are the human common denominator, creating connections and giving us the capacity to communicate beyond the politics of national borders. Textiles promote cross-cultural exchange and migration. Ancient trade routes expanded our capacity to understand and fuse differences. As human beings, we desire to create or appreciate creativity, and travel has given us the ability to blend different techniques and designs as creators and makers. Across the continents, peoples exchanged fabrics, culture, art, techniques and language.
Visually, we see the similarities of designs: the infinite circle of life, the Eye of God, the butterfly, mountains and rain, the life affirming force of the sun, the power of lightening, the duality of light and dark or man and woman. Common threads point to common interests, dreams, fears and needs. We seek meaning in textiles that share these common motifs even though there was no physical connection between makers from disparate parts of the world.
The symbols of cloth point to fertility and childbirth, abundance, protection, universal hope. The Evil Eye represents fear of the unknown expressed in the embroidered mirrors of India, glass beads of Egypt, amulets in Southeast Asia.
The Social Justice of Textiles now points us to what we value and what we need to pay attention to: handmade beauty of slow fiber or mass produced fast-fashion that results in pollution, cheap prices, subsistance labor in abusive factories. Disposable clothing in a disposable society represents, I believe, deep dissatisfaction that yields multiple marriages, self-indulgences and self-destruction.
Fabric has a lot to teach us. Whether it is embroidery, knitting, sewing, weaving, piecing, dyeing, designing, these are art forms practiced by both women and men. It is a way for individuals and communities to rise out of poverty, to overcome war and refugee experiences. For the individual, the meaningful act of creating can eliminate sadness and depression, is empowering and healing, may resolve conflict, and overcome the ravages of lingering colonialism.
When we purchase clothing to wear, we have a conscious choice to make. Will we invest a bit more to buy something that is created by hand that will directly improve the lives of the makers? Will we choose a low-cost, factory-made garment that will serve us in the short-term? Either way, it is important to be aware of our own reasons and motivations, as well as our own willingness to understand ourselves, others and the world we inhabit.
There are no intellectual property protections for indigenous makers in the international court of law. IP laws cover individuals, not cooperatives or communities. We must also be aware of “knock-offs,” what textile leaders are calling cultural appropriation or cultural plagiarism. This is rampant in the design world, where native symbols of meaning and spirituality are replicated only for the purposes of commercialization and profitability, made by invisible labor hired by factory owners who work under the most oppressive conditions. We call these sweatshops and they follow the international labor market, moving to countries where manufacturing is the most profitable, taking advantage of the lowest hourly wages with no benefits.
One way we can all reassure the continuity of native cultures and fair-market value is to buy directly from artisan makers, and when this is not possible, to purchase directly from representatives who understand and support their endeavors. Please help spread the word!
I am offering textiles and jewelry for sale in my Etsy Store. I support artisan makers. If you are interested in making a purchase, please see the Etsy Store, then send me an email firstname.lastname@example.org When you buy direct from me, I will offer you a 10% discount and a $12 flat rate mailing fee. You may purchase with Zelle, Venmo or PayPal. Thank you very much.
Marla Jensen wrote to me to ask if I can help put the word out for help to support The Oaxaca Street Children Grassroots. This is the USA-based, 501 (c) 3 not-for-profit that provides funding for Centro de Esperanza Infantil in Oaxaca. Some of you know it, located on Crespo Street. Marla knows how generous our readers are because you have been so supportive of The Oaxaca Mask Project. I invited her to write a guest post to tell us why help is needed during these Covid-19 times. I hope you read through this! It is worthy of our generosity.
By Marla Jensen
They say: Give children pesos on the street and you feed them for a day. Give them an education and feed them for life.
Oaxaca is a magical destination for so many of us who love Mexican art, culture, food, history, and adventure. These charms sometimes mask the reality that Oaxaca is the second poorest state in Mexico, with the poverty rate nearly three times the national average.
About 24% of Oaxaca people live in extreme poverty. Oaxaca’s population is about 58 percent indigenous, with many living in relatively isolated rural locations with marginal services such as electricity and clean water. Getting an education is only a dream for many children. We have seen young children in the city working all day and late hours to earn money for their families.
Families try to survive on an average daily wage of $6.00-$7.00 USD. Their future is dim without the promise of an education. Current conditions with Covid-19 make the conditions much worse for poor families.
Your support matters because we give kids a start here. Many go on to graduate from college.
As visitors or expatriates, how do we give back to a place that gives so much to us? Our tourism dollars help, we buy the beautiful crafts, and try to respond with donations to those on the streets. But what about giving a child an education?
After many years of helping children in Oaxaca, in 1996 a couple from the U.S., Jodi and Harold Bauman, along with friends and supporters, created a non-profit 501-C called Oaxaca Streetchildren Grassroots (OSCGR) with the mission to help get children off the streets and into school. To facilitate the work in Mexico they partnered with Centro de Esperanza Infantil, which does the work on-site in Oaxaca.
Oaxaca Streetchildren Grassroots has a volunteer board in the United States dedicated to supporting and providing funding to Centro de Esperanza Infantil. The Centro has a small staff and volunteer help who provide continual services to about 700 children and youth.
The Centro de Esperanza Infantil is a warm welcoming center on Calle Crespo providing social services, a daily meal, some medical and dental services, tutoring, a computer lab, and library. If you drop by the Center, you will see happy kids, a beautiful environment, international students volunteering, and lots of energy.
Children attend public school with the donated funds. The original goal was to serve children who had never attended school and for them to complete sixth grade. Now, they serve the poorest children who need support to remain in and complete school. OSCGR takes students all the way through university. There are now almost 600 students enrolled in the program from elementary through high school. An additional 104 are enrolled in technical, university and graduate school programs.
In the Spring of 2020, they celebrated their 100th university graduate!
Marla’s Personal Story
I first visited Oaxaca in 1986, following my interest in folk art. For almost 35 years I have returned regularly and deepened my relationship with this magical place. My sister Sharon and I learned of Oaxaca Streetchildren Grassroots in the 1990’s and together we sponsored an 8-year old child, Bryan Flores Vallejo. We met his family, took him with us when we visited sites, and introduced him to our families. He graduated from high school and now runs a successful business. I love the relationship we have had as his madrinas.
Sharon, Bryan and Marla
Sharon and I operated La Sirena Oaxaca Gallery for several years, buying and selling folk art, and donating a percentage of profits to OSCGR. We invited friends to Oaxaca with us, bringing along donations of clothing, toothbrushes, and school supplies.
Sadly, in August 2019, my sister Sharon passed away from metastatic melanoma cancer. As a way to honor her memory as a teacher and lover of Oaxaca, I gathered a group together and we sponsor Sharon’s Children. What a meaningful legacy……to educate five children!
I am so pleased to turn a personal loss into something positive. I have recently joined the Board of Directors of Oaxaca Streetchildren Grassroots and am hoping to spread the word about this wonderful program.
Covid-19 is taking it’s toll in Oaxaca as around the world. The lack of tourism greatly affects the economy and already marginalized families are struggling. Oaxaca Streetchildren has put out requests for additional donations and the response has been tremendous, but it is still not enough!
The Centro has been able to give out several hundred “dispensas”, or food packages. There has been additional help given as needed for utilities, water, medical needs. The center has been modified to provide physical distance and safety so services may continue.
There are several ways to support Oaxaca Streetchildren Grassroots. Your donation of $250 a year will enable an individual child to get an education. A $500 -a-year-gift will support a university student. You will be assigned a specific child and receive information about them and their academic progress. You will be able to visit and develop a relationship if you choose.
Your donation gives the child a pair of shoes, a pair of tennis shoes, a school uniform, a P.E. uniform, a backpack, school supplies, inscription fees, guidance and counseling. In addition, the child may come to the center for a daily meal, use the computers, library, take extra classes, get tutoring and help with homework.
You may also donate to the general fund and the gift will be used for children who do not have a sponsor or for other program expenses.
Please make a gift. Your support has a direct benefit to make a difference in a child’s life. And, your gift is USA tax-deductible.
Together We Will Change the World Through Education!
Posted onThursday, June 6, 2019|Comments Off on Oaxaca’s Pacific Coast Offers Biodiversity for NC State University Students
After five days around Oaxaca city and into the rural Tlacolula Valley, our group of 13 people boarded the Little Airplane That Could — the 13-passenger AeroTucan, for a 35-minute flight to Puerto Escondido.
Over the next five days we would immerse ourselves in the the bio- and cultural diversity of Oaxaca’s Pacific Coast.
Beach food: shrimp and snapper tacos
There we would meet meet a mango grower and an organic peanut butter cooperative, participate in an baby sea turtle release of endangered Ridley hatchlings, swim in the bioluminescent Laguna Manialtepec, explore the delicate ecosystem that supports mangrove trees (worldwide mangroves contribute to 30% of the earth’s oxygen), climb seacoast rocks in search of rare murex snails that give up purple shell dye, understand propagation and cultivation of native pre-Hispanic brown, green and cream-colored cotton, delve into genetics and plant hybridization of corn, coconut, and beans at a federal research institute.
Protecting endangered Ridley sea turtles Rock climbing in search of rare murex sea snail
A highlight of this part of the study abroad experience was the day we spent in Tututepec, the ancient Mixtec capitol, in the mountains overlooking the ocean. From this vantage point, 8-Deer Jaguar Claw, the most famous and powerful Mixtec warrior, ruled a vast territory before the Spanish conquest.
Tututepec murals depict history, ethnic diversity of Oaxaca coastLuis Adan incorporates murex purple shell dye into traditional clothFresh seafood makes up local diet; the daily catch
After visiting the archeological museum and murals at the cultural center, we went to the home of 27-year-old weaver Luis Adan, who is rescuing the traditions of his people. Luis Adan is researching and reproducing ancient textile patterns using traditional back-strap loom weaving techniques, and native cotton that he grows, cards and spins by hand.
Genetic seed breeding creates a healthier, more productive coconut tree
Luis Adan traveled two hours by bus to Puerto Escondido to take us along the rocky coastline searching the crevices for the allusive caracol purpura. Sustainability, we learn, comes in many forms. Luis Adan milks the snail to extract the purple color, applying the liquid directly to skeins of hand-spun cotton or silk. The snail is then return to the rocks, alive, to regenerate. The purple color is woven as as accent color into local cloth, rare and costly.
Oaxaca native cream, green and coyuchi cotton before it is carded and spunWe ate our fill, just picked, ripe and delicious
At the Mango Orchard: most of the mangoes grown along the hot, humid coast of Oaxaca are organic. Farmers use no insecticides and apply a bio-fertilizer mix of molasses and rice flour. Water from wells is pumped using a microaspersian watering system. Along the coast, farmers plant mango, papaya, peanuts and sesame. Whatever they grow depends on market demand.
Mango farmer Gil, with a bundle of ripe ones; he ships to Puebla and Oaxaca city
Growing papaya takes more of an investment because it requires pesticides. Small scale farmers can’t afford organic certification because it takes four years to get a field certified as organic. Farmer Gil told us he pays field workers 200-300 pesos a day when the Mexican minimum way is 100 pesos a day; he has a hard time finding labor.
Green beans add nitrogen to the soil, a natural fertilizer at the experimental institute
We are planning our 2020 and 2021 programming and want to offer similar study abroad opportunities to universities in the USA. Please contact us if you are interested. email@example.com
We know the culture! We are locally owned and operated.
Eric Chavez Santiago is Zapotec, born and raised in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca.
Norma Schafer has been living in Oaxaca for almost 20 years.
We have deep connections with artists and artisans.
63% of our travelers repeat -- high ratings, high satisfaction.
Wide ranging expertise.
We give you a deep immersion to best know Oaxaca and Mexico.
Creating Connectionand Meaning between travelers and with indigenous artisans. Meet makers where they live and work. Join small groups of like-minded explorers. Go deep into remote villages. Gain insights. Support cultural heritage and sustainable traditions ie. hand weaving and natural dyeing. Create value and memories. Enjoy hands-on experiences. Make a difference.
What is a Study Tour: Our programs are learning experiences, and as such we talk with makers about how and why they create, what is meaningful to them, the ancient history of patterning and design, use of color, tradition and innovation, values and cultural continuity, and the social context within which they work. First and foremost, we are educators. Norma worked in top US universities for over 35 years and Eric founded the education department at Oaxaca’s textile museum. We create connection.
OCN Creates Student Scholarship at Oaxaca Learning Center Giving back is a core value. Read about it here!
Why We Left, Expat Anthology: Norma’s Personal Essay
Norma contributes personal essay, How Oaxaca Became Home
We Contribute Two Chapters!
Click image to order yours!
Meet Makers. Make a Difference
Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC has offered programs in Mexico since 2006. We have over 30 years of university, textile and artisan development experience. See About Us.
Programs can be scheduled to meet your independent travel plans. Send us your available dates.
Designers, retailers, wholesalers, curators, universities and others come to us to develop artisan relationships, customized itineraries, study abroad programs, meetings and conferences. It's our pleasure to make arrangements.
Select Clients *Abeja Boutique, Houston *Selvedge Magazine-London, UK *Esprit Travel and Tours *Penland School of Crafts *North Carolina State University *WARP Weave a Real Peace *Methodist University *MINNA-Goods *Smockingbird Kids *University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Oaxaca has the largest and most diverse textile culture in Mexico! Learn about it.
When you visit Oaxaca immerse yourself in our textile culture: How is indigenous clothing made, what is the best value, most economical, finest available. Suitable for adults only. Set your own dates.
One-Day Custom Tours: Tell Us When You Want to Go!
New--Ruta del Mezcal One-Day Tour.We start the day with pottery, visiting a master, then have lunch with a Traditional Oaxaca Cook who is the master of mole making. In Mitla, we meet with our favorite flying shuttle loom weaver, and then finish off with a mezcal tasting at a palenque you will NEVER find on your own! Schedule at your convenience!
We require 48-hour advance notice for map orders to be processed. We send a printable map via email PDF after your order is received. Please be sure to send your email address. Where to see natural dyed rugs in Teotitlan del Valle and layout of the Sunday Tlacolula Market, with favorite eating, shopping, ATMs. Click Here to Buy Map After you click, be sure to check PayPal to ensure your email address isn't hidden from us. We fulfill each map order personally. It is not automatic.
Dye Master Dolores Santiago Arrellanas with son Omar Chavez Santiago, weaver and dyer, Fey y Lola Rugs, Teotitlan del Valle